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Monday 30 November 2009

You Can't Buy Class, But If We're Talking Xmas Wish Lists, How About A Pukka Centre-Forward & A World Class Keeper

There were plenty of eyebrows raised on Sunday, when we realised that Alex Song wasn’t coming out for the second-half. After conceding two gut-wrenching goals in the last 5 minutes before the break, it must’ve dawned on Arsène that there was no point in us dominating possession, with an extra man in midfield, without imposing any threat up front. But sadly Theo Walcott didn’t have much of an impact, nor did Vela when he replaced Eduardo, nor Rosicky when came on for Nasri.

In fact for the entire 90 it felt as if our far too feeble canons were firing soft bread rolls, which were unlikely ever to make a dent in the reinforced steel of Chelsea's defence. Although le Gaffer might’ve been going for broke, by withdrawing our most defensively minded midfielder, it could be argued that we’d have been better off if Song had stayed out on the park, because out of the 9 players (6 & 3 subs) who played in front our defence on Sunday, Song was the only one with the sort of muscular presence to present Chelsea with a different problem.

I can’t agree with all those pundits who maintain that it was men against boys, as for the most part, I felt our diminutive midfield didn’t do so badly at containing Lampard, Essien and co. and the Chelsea midfield will make hay against several more physical sides this season. Size is a factor, when we’re banging the ball into the box for the schnips likes Eduardo and Vela to compete in vain, in the air against much bigger centre-backs. But it’s not always relevant, as I went home to watch Lionel Messi romp past Real Madrid, in “El Classico” at the Nou Camp, with almost the entire opposition taking a turn at trying to shove the tenacious little maestro off the ball.

No if Sunday’s game served as proof of anything, it was a stark reminder that in the absence of Van Persie and Bendtner, Arsène efforts to try and rescue something from this match floundered on the fact that he was left replacing like for like, with a potpourri of identikit players that currently leave the Gunners looking like an albeit attractive and extremely talented, one trick pony!

Watching Drogba and Lampard discussing the free-kick, as the Blues lined up to hammer home the third and final nail in the lid of our coffin, it occurred to me that they must be facing one of the Premiership’s smallest ever walls. Let’s face it, you don’t need to impart much “English” on the ball to get it up and over Arshavin! Yet in spite of the flattering scoreline, when you consider how this Arsenal side was being written off before the season started, we shouldn’t be feeling too downhearted.

We’ve witnessed a definite improvement in Wenger’s work in progress, but in my humble opinion, it’s at either end of the park where we continue to fall short of the qualities and the consistency needed to challenge at the very highest level.

Quite frankly a clean sheet was never on the cards for this Arsenal side, against an “on fire” Drogba & Anelka. Yet despite the painfully amusing sight of Traore literally bouncing off Drogba, like a ball hitting the side of an arctic barrelling along at 100mph, Chelsea’s potent strike force didn’t embarrass us, in the way that Drogba did for Phillipe Senderos, leaving the Swiss centre-back a permanent psychological wreck.

However that “corridor of uncertainty” which Cashley found with his 2 crosses could be a whole lot less vulnerable, if it was occupied by a demonstrative goalie, who dominated his area. If we had a screaming lunatic of a world class keeper, coming to claim everything in his 6-yard box, instead of a timid Almunia stopping on his goalline and remaining schtum, Tommie Vermaelen might not have stuck a tentative leg out?

Meanwhile conceding the odd goal only becomes a critical problem, when the formerly free-scoring Gunners suddenly look so impotent, as if they’ve undergone a mass vasectomy! With absolutely no variation on our intricate efforts to pick a path through the heart of the opposition defence with our mazy passing patterns, the Blues rarely looked ruffled. They merely had to get enough bodies behind the ball to block our route to their goal.

Eduardo’s a proven goal poacher and perhaps he and Vela need only a little confidence to learn to lead the line. Though sadly to date they both appear to lack either the pace, power, or reaction speed required to profit from the scant few opportunities that open up in games against the top teams. Unless we witness a dramatic improvement, with Van Persie out for 5 months, there’s going to be massive pressure on Bendtner to pick up the lone striker slack, on the Dane’s return to fitness.

Sunday’s game demonstrated that if Arsène continues to stick rigidly to 4-5-1, rather than using our available horses for 4-4-2 courses, then surely he’s got to spend in January if he’s serious about fulfilling his promise to end our barren spell.

I suppose he could look to the kids, but with the Brady Bunch seemingly all developed from one single mould, I’m not sure there’s a recognised centre-forward anywhere on the conveyor belt of the Arsenal’s production line of talented tiny-totts. There’s certainly no-one who’d offer the impetus of the addition of an experienced “big man” with proven line-leading ability.

Still there’s nothing like the prospect of watching our youngsters, hopefully making a monkey out of Man City’s all-star millionaires, to blow away the cobwebs of Sunday’s calamity. It’d be extremely careless of us to lose sight of a second trophy in the same week, but with City fans already beginning to moan about Adebayor’s indolence, the pressure on our youngsters will be positively minimal, compared to the demands for a return on Mark Hughes’ spillage of Abu Dhabi oil reserves.

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Friday 27 November 2009

Money Can't Buy Class

My mate Nick has made a banner for Sunday's game and since one can't post attachments to the Arsenal mailing list, I thought I'd be best posting the picture of it up on my blog, as I'm sure others will also get a kick out of it.

One of his Spurs pals replied to the email to enquire why the Russian underneath says "Come on you Spurs" and I couldn't resist playing along, by suggesting that it actually translates to "Big yacht, small dick"

Come on you rip, roaring Reds

Hopefully to be seen hanging from Club Level, East Side this Sunday, directly opposite the Directors Box :-)

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Long Road Home

Hi folks,

I was late for work (as always!) on Monday morning, as I had to finish my diary piece and file it to the Irish Examiner. In some respects, it might have been wise for me to steer well clear of the handball controversy because such are the (entirely understandable) levels of anger and resentment on the other side of the Irish Sea, that I would only end up alienating Irish readers, no matter what I might have to say on the subject.

Nevertheless, as gutted as I am about Ireland's World Cup exit and the ignominious incident which did for the Boys in Green, this still doesn't detract from the fact that I don't think I've ever been more enthralled watching football, than when watching Thierry Henry turn it on. It's hard for me to hear friends and family lambasting the player who, while perhaps not the most supremely talented (with such stiff competition), Thierry's right at the very top of my list of players I'd be prepared to pay money to watch because of his amazing, animal like grace.

Consequently I couldn't resist having my tu'penny worth on the subject. By some coincidence Arsène also had his say, in his programme notes in this last night's programme, where he's also made reference to the point which most troubled me, in all the post-Paris brouhaha, where Irish ire over the injustice of it all, seems to have left everyone under the misapprehension that Ireland would be going to the World Cup, if it wasn't for Henry's handling of the ball, when actually if the goal had been disallowed, the game would've probably ended in a penalty shoot-out.

After the dreadful disappointment of Saturday's defeat was compounded by Jermaine Defoe's jamboree against Wigan at White Hart Lane, I was perhaps glad of the excuse to digress. But as a result, I decided to delay posting out my diary piece, until I'd found time to write a preamble which might hopefully make my weekly missive a little more relevant for those Gooners not interested in the events surrounding Ireland's World Cup demise.

Unfortunately (or fortunately!), I've been so busy that I'm only getting around to it subsequent to our 2-0 victory over Standard Liège. Hands up those Gooners who can truthfully say they were the least bit excited in the lead up to Tuesday night's encounter? If I'm entirely honest, such was my apathy towards another uninspiring Champions League meeting with the Belgian champions, that I'd completely forgotten about the game, until I received a text message from the chap who's leased Rona's ticket, to say that he couldn't make it and that his partner would be coming in his stead.

Doubtless I would've heard something on the radio during the day, to remind me that there was a game on. But then again, I'm an avid Radio 4 aficionado and I'd have been more likely to have been listening to The Archers, than the team news for this Tuesday's fixtures. I could've quite easily dawdled home from work, only to discover I needed to make a mad dash around to the stadium, when the increased traffic and the sight of people scurrying along with their red & white scarves flapping around their necks in the gale force winds, would've suddenly caused the penny to drop.

OK, so judging by the raucous hullabaloo coming from one corner of the stadium, there were a couple of thousand Belgian fans bang up for the match. But for the most part, this was an example of the charabanc of the Champions League commercial bandwagon, grinding its way relentlessly through the relatively banal group stages, for the benefit of the media, the advertisers, the all-important colossus that is UEFA's commercial partners and everybody in fact, except the players and us poor put-upon fans.

Season ticket holders might not feel the cost, when simply shoving their membership card into the electronic turnstile gadget, without actually having to stump up any hard cash for Tuesday night's fare (it was "tonight's match" when I started!! :-), but believe me, if we progress in the domestic cups, as well as the Champions League knockout stages and the club start tagging on the cost of each home cup tie, past the seven included in our renewal fees, to next year's total, we'll bear the brunt of having to pay for Tuesday night's relatively pointless exercise, as we are forced to sit down and scratch our heads and wonder where the money is going to come from, to meet the seriously inflated figure shown on next season's renewal forms.

As I was rushing around to the ground, late as ever, I was far from alone, as there were literally thousands still pouring out of the Arsenal tube, as the teams came out and that familiar Champions League refrain echoed out from the stadium. But where usually, many of these latecomers would be frantically charging around the corner and sprinting up the stairs beside Highbury House and across the North Bridge, as fast as their legs could carry them, for fear of missing an early goal, you could positively sense how insignificant Tuesday night's result was, or perhaps more accurately, you could sense that everyone was taking a run of the mill, one-sided drubbing of the European small fry for granted, in the plodding, unhurried pace of all those tardy Gooners.

With my terrace tranny tuned into Five Live, commentating from Budapest, Alan Green made some remark about the Champions League music making the hairs on the back of ones neck stand up. Yet while there might've been a lot more interest in Liverpool's car crash European campaign, I am afraid that personally speaking the sound of this music has been the precursor to so many meaningless Champions League group games that it really does nothing for me (at this stafe). Doubtless I will get in the spirit of things as we eventually get into the more exciting knockout rounds in the spring. But when I think back to how excited I used to get about a big midweek European clash, under the floodlights, when the hair really did stand up on the back of my neck, it's a great pity that the frequency of these mundane European matches has long since worn the gloss off what should be a special occasion.

I am sure I heard someone on the radio state prior to kick off that we could've lost last night's game 1-2 and still won the group! Considering what subsequently transpired, I reckon that the vast majority of Gooners would've gladly forfeited the match and given the Belgians the three points. Aside from the fact that this would've at least meant that for all those with trips to Greece booked for a couple of weeks time, they could've been travelling out to the Olympiakos game feeling that there was something to play for. But far more importantly, we wouldn't have ended up with so many players left battered and bruised and with poor Kieran Gibbs condemned to the treatment room for several months with a broken metatarsal, in advance of Sunday's crucial clash with Chelsea.

To be honest, I started fretting the moment I saw the name "Witsel" on the back of one of the Standard Liège players shirts and I suddenly remembered that this was the same Axel Witsel responsible for the horrific, leg-breaking tackle that I'd seen on YouTube, which was deemed so malicious that he subsequently received a three month ban. From then on, I spent the vast majority of the game worrying about picking up injuries and more players being ruled out for Sunday. I was studying the scene through my binoculars, every time an Arsenal player hit the deck, checking to establish whether it was just the immature Manny Eboué, doing his dying swan routine, or whether there was cause for real concern.

I held my breath several times when Alex Song hobbled to his feet, hoping against hope that Alex hadn't picked up an injury, because any last hopes of a win on Sunday would've gone straight out the window if we were left without even "one Song". I'm not sure that the Belgians were guilty of being overly physical, as I think that with us 2-0 up at half-time, our thoughts had already turned to Sunday's game. With Liège just trying to make up for what they lacked in ability, with their full-blooded commitment and with our lads not wanting to get knobbled before the Chelsea game, sadly this was inevitably a recipe for more problems.

I can just about still remember back to my own playing days, where as a left-back, I soon learned that you are much less likely to get hurt going for a ball with 100 per cent commitment, than you are if the least bit trepidatious, as instead of your body being relaxed, this will result in the sort of tension that can often prove a contributing factor in inviting harm.

Then again poor Kieran Gibbs had little say in his unfortunate metatarsal injury and watching the slow-motion replay, I have to admit that the Liège player did appear guilty of a certain malicious intent. But then again such incidents always appear much worse when viewed in slow-motion. Gibbs must be absolutely gutted, as with Gael Clichy out with a long-term problem, this was a rare opportunity for him to get a long run in the team and possibly challenge Clichy for his first team shirt. Not to mention the prospect of catching Capello's eye and perhaps even challenging Cashley for a World Cup berth, since I've heard more than one pundit suggest that Kieran could be an outside bet for Capello's squad.

However with Gibbs now looking likely to be out until March, he's bound to be feeling as if he's missed this boat, as he could struggle to get a game for the Gunners, once a fit and fresh Clichy comes back into the side and I guess Kieran's got to at least be playing regular first team football to merit consideration by Capello. But all this is of little relevance as far more immediate matters are concerned.

Personally I just pray that Traore is fit and first choice for Sunday, as for all Silvestre's experience, he doesn't exactly inspire me with much confidence and unlike the majority of our team, I get this worrying sense that Silvestre is not really comfortable in possession of the ball, but prefers to treat it like a hot potato. I imagine nerves are inevitable, when you come into a competitive game, after sitting on the bench for so long. Yet it seems to me as if Silvestre is perhaps just a little too aware of his own limitations and if I get this feeling, then doubtless so will any opposition striker worth his salt.

I really don't understand why Arsène left Gallas on the pitch, for such a long time after he and Shava clashed heads. On the radio they suggested Willie could hardly see out of his swollen eye socket (perhaps giving him an excuse for the awful tackle that looked a certain penalty from where I sat!) and I would've thought that once we were two goals to the good, we could've afforded to let Gallas go off and get some ice on his injury, as in my extensive experience, ice is many times more effective if you get it on the injury before all the swelling occurs!

Gallas' inclusion in the starting line-up on Sunday is no less crucial than Alex Song. Not just because Willie "is our mate, he hates Chelsea" but because unfortunately the alternative just doesn't bear thinking about!

With Vermaelen and Gallas at the heart of our defence, the likes of Drogba and Anelka will be expecting a stiff examination of their title winning credentials on Sunday. But with Big Phil Senderos and Silvestre having the turning circle of an oil tanker, I imagine the Chelsea strikers would be absolutely licking their lips, in anticipation of breezing past our lumbering stand-ins. What news of Djourou and I wonder when the likes of Kyle Bartley might be considered worth giving the chance to step up?

However if our squad is looking a bit shallow, when it comes to centre-backs who don't come with a "brown trousers a necessity" warning attached, it's not actually our back four which gives me most cause for concern in advance of Sunday's game, as I don't imagine the bookies will be taking too many bets, on us being able to keep a clean sheet, no matter what side we put out!

The likelihood of the Kings Road "arrivistes" breaching Almunia's goal is only going to be a big problem if we can't double their tally at t'other end and if Eduardo did little against Sunderland to suggest he's suited to Arsène's 4-5-1 formation, then to my mind, sadly Carlos Vela was no more convincing on Tuesday night!

To expand on my comment in my diary piece below, about Robin Van Persie, it's most odd, because while virtually everyone in our squad aside from our keeper, has been adding their name to the impressively long list of Arsenal goal scorers, myself I wouldn't have looked at this free-scoring incarnation of the Gunners and said that Van Persie was such a vital component. Others have suggested different and some pundits have been postulating about the development of a new tactical position, or a "false nine" as some have labelled Robin's role. As I understand it, this theory contends that Van Persie hasn't being playing the traditional part of a lone centre-forward, but that by dropping deeper, as a "false nine", Van Persie has provided the space for his team mates to exploit.

However we're not talking American Football here and unlike the Philistine sport player across the pond, proper footballers don't play the beautiful game according to a specified "play book" which dictates exactly what each players does and where they run. Football is a far more fluid game than the "septics" sissy version of rugby and I don't really buy the idea that Van Persie has been playing according to Arsène's precisely defined tactical instructions. There's no disputing the fact that our Dutch striker has been seen dropping deep, but for my money, he's merely been acting on instinct and looking to get more involved, by making himself more available to receive a pass, than if he was marauding on his own up front, on the shoulder of the opposition defence, where it's both harder to find him with the ball and for him to take possession.

Personally I find myself getting increasingly frustrated with Van Persie, when he takes up a more advanced position and it feels as if I am forever muttering under my breath, imploring Robin to stay on his feet, as it seems to me as if, nine times out of ten when the ball is passed to him with his back to the defender marking him and he knows he's not going to be allowed the time to turn and take the player on, Van Persie will hit the deck, looking for a foul to be awarded in his favour, for a challenge from behind.

As a result, if Van Persie is actually performing in this "false nine" role, I get the distinct impression that this is a natural, instinctive tendency, rather than some sort of specified tactical ploy, merely because Robin doesn't really enjoy the lone striker's role, knowing that he's got four defenders waiting to clatter straight into him, often before he even has an opportunity to control the ball.

So when Van Persie drop's deeper, I reckon he's merely trying to escape the close attentions of the opposition defence and receive the ball where he's more likely to find the time to turn and to have some impact on the game, without taking another whack on the shins (or the achilles, when he's got his back to his marker).

If this should have the effect of dragging opposition players with him and leaving a void up front for the likes of Arshavin, Fabregas etc. to exploit, then all well and good. But if this premise is the principle factor involved in the positive glut of goals we've enjoyed to date, then Eduardo, Vela, or anyone else for that matter should be able to slip into the same "false nine" role with similar results.

Van Persie's only been missing for two games and I have to trust that Wenger knows Eduardo and Vela both have more than enough natural ability to be able to do the job. But it pains me to say that from what I've seen so far, there's a big psychological difference, both in terms of these two alternatives not having earned their Premiership stripes to the same extent as our Dutch striker, so that neither they, nor their team mates demonstrate the necessary levels of confidence and in the way they are perceived by the opposition, in as much as they aren't deemed a sufficient threat for them to cause the sort of distraction amongst the opposition defence that provides others with the opportunity to take advantage.

No one will be happier, if (hopefully!) either Eddie or Carlos goes and leaves me with my foot in my mouth after Sunday's game, having utterly terrorized Chelsea's goalmouth or by dragging defenders around to such an extent that they afford Shava or Theo the opportunity to do likewise.

Still if it wasn't for the fact that le gaffer has chosen to stick quite so religiously to his recently acquired preference for this 4-5-1 formation (but then I'm hoist by my own "if it ain't broke" petard!), since we're at home to Chelsea on Sunday, I can't help but wonder if, in the absence of both Van Persie and Bendtner (with the Dane in truth the only player in our squad with the traditional natural attributes of a lone striker), we wouldn't perhaps be better off reverting to a 4-4-2 line-up. In light of the circumstances, I'm sure I'm not alone in not feeling particularly confident about Sunday's game, but whatever the outcome, I would be a lot happier to see us go out there and take Chelsea on, thereby giving the Blues something to worry about, rather than merely attempting to nullify the visitors threat, by matching them man for man, in the middle of the park.

Absolutely the last thing I want to see on Sunday is the Gunners going out to avoid getting beat, as we know only too well that this sort of negative attitude doesn't suit this Arsenal side because we're simply not cut out for grinding out a result. Besides, while the visitors might see a share of the spoils as an entirely adequate result, for us, a draw will only be a slightly better outcome than a defeat. But if we want to put a marker down as genuine contenders, in truth we need to display something of a gung-ho, sh*t or bust attitude, where we settle for nothing less than all three points.

But then what do I know? I only hope that we can trust in the Gunners traditional response to having our backs somewhat up against the wall and that it brings out the very best in us. And if there was any absence of anticipation in advance of Tuesday night's uninspiring bash, I guess I'm saving it all up for Sunday afternoon; despite my lack of optimism, I can already feel the excitement welling up as the weekend approaches.

Meanwhile (in case anyone is still with me!) I cannot sign off without expressing my heartfelt gratitude to those of my mates who's sterling stints at the steering wheel to Wearside and back last weekend, meant that I was able to while away most of the journey, snoozing in the back of the motor. As someone who covers so many miles on the road during the week for work, it was a rare treat to be able to sit back and allow someone else to do all the graft and it made an extremely disappointing and arduously long schlep just that little bit less painful as far as I was concerned

Come on you rip roaring Reds
Nuff Love

Amongst the beautiful game’s most enigmatic qualities is its capacity for turning heroes, to zeroes, as a result of a single kick of the ball (or a tap of the hand!). Gooners arriving at our ground last night will have discovered that the last of the eight massive murals has been erected. Our new stadium is now encircled by the images of 32 Arsenal legends, where ironically, the first of these that appeared included representations of Thierry Henry, with his arm draped across the shoulder of none other than Liam Brady.

It would be easy for me to court public opinion by joining in with the vitriolic vilification of Henry, which immediately followed events in Paris last Wednesday. Yet even though I could be no less distraught about Ireland being cheated of a place in next summer’s tournament, if I was actually Irish borne (as opposed to considering myself an adopted Irishman), I simply can’t allow this one calamitous event to taint all my memories, by turning the player responsible for some of the most wonderful football it has ever been my privilege to witness, into Satan’s spawn.

Henry is not a bad man and personally, I believe he only reacted in the exact same, instinctive manner as the vast majority would’ve done, given the same circumstances. Rumour has it that Domenech is little more than the equivalent of the ventriloquist’s dummy and that it’s Henry who’s the de facto head honcho of the French squad. As such, I imagine Titi feels the responsibility of guiding France to the World Cup finals even more acutely and must’ve been no less desperate than all those aging players out on the park, in the twilight of their careers, who just don’t have the security blanket of another four more years.

I’m not trying to justify, or condone Henry’s handling of the ball. With the thought of living out his days, forever trying to cope with agonisingly inflated repayment terms on the price of failure, Henry merely did what needed to be done, in order to try and win the day. Judging by the way in which Thierry sat down on the pitch, to join a disconsolate Richard Dunne, rather than wallowing in their success, I sensed that he was patently aware of the consequences and the fact that he’d just cast himself as the Emerald Isle’s pantomime villain for all eternity.

You have to wonder if Titi had the power to stop time and weigh up possible World Cup qualification, against the thought of forever being labelled a cheat, would he have reacted differently. Similarly, if the shoe was on the other foot, would we all still be climbing on our moral high horse and clamouring for a replay quite so vociferously, to satisfy our sense of fair play?

Meanwhile, in all the brouhaha that followed, many seemed to be under the misapprehension that Ireland would be going to South Africa next summer, if it wasn’t for Gallas scoring as a result of Henry having illegally kept the ball in play. In truth the Boys in Green blew a couple of great opportunities to put the result to bed during the 90 minutes and up until the controversial incident, I thought the ref had done particularly well, as a weaker man might’ve easily succumbed to awarding the French a penalty when Anelka went down in the box.

Yet without Gallas’ goal, it seems to have been conveniently forgotten that we would’ve likely been left facing the ultimate crap shoot of penalties at the end of the 120 minutes. I suppose in some respects we might be better off having someone else to blame than the prospect of one of our own enduring the collective wrath of the entire nation, after having put the ball over the bar.

At the end of the day, I’m sure there are plenty of Georgians who believe that Ireland are no more deserving of a replay than they were back in February, following a bizarre handball decision that went in Ireland’s favour and if there was an injustice, it was the positively criminal way in which seeding was introduced to the play-offs at the last minute, to lend the bigger nations an advantage. The irony is that on the evidence of what we’ve seen, this French side haven’t a hope of achieving the sort of dramatic improvement necessary for them to have an impact in South Africa next summer.

Moreover, the entire tournament is likely to be a whole lot less joyful for the absence of the Green Army. Yet to counter the increasing demands for technology to be introduced, to try and rid football of such dodgy decisions, I will always contend that it is the flawed, rub of the green factor that makes the sport so intriguing and without the element of controversy we’d be left with nothing to argue about in the pub all night.

I could perhaps abide the introduction of goal-line technology, but this is a slippery slope and ultimately I reside staunchly in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” camp. Although Fergie might have the pre-requisite red nose, I find the prospect of football turning into an all-day circus like the abortion of the sport played across the pond, complete with touchline Bozo’s with a pocketful of handkerchiefs with which they can interrupt proceedings at a whim, utterly abhorrent.

On the same theme of the vagaries of fate and fortune, after enduring the longest outing of the season, where our weary return from Wearside seemed almost twice the distance after such a thoroughly dissatisfying display and with a miserable weekend being rounded off by Spurs’ unseemly goalfest (our neighbours are an all together more potent threat with Krancjar pulling the strings), I am at least grateful to Henry for giving me cause to digress.

Wenger’s uncharacteristic criticism of our own troops was perhaps a reflection on the significance of this result. Instead of putting down the sort of marker that might confirm our pretensions as serious challengers and maintaining our momentum, we’ve instead reminded everyone of the Gunners’ soft under-belly. I never envisaged Van Persie as quite such a crucial cog in the Arsenal machine, but with Arsène having nailed his flag to our 4-5-1 formation, in the absence of the Dutchman (along with the Dane, Bendtner), our diminutive strikeforce suddenly looks decidedly lightweight.

At the Stadium of Light it was left to Alex Song and our centre-backs to instigate all too rare driving runs at the opposition, while Sunderland’s earnest endeavours restricted Fabregas to a couple of “Hail Mary” long range efforts. It’s not size that’s the principal problem, but the fact that circumstances have conspired to deprive us of forwards with the confidence and the swagger to grab games by the scruff of the neck.

It’s a positively baffling anomaly, considering we’ve been banging in goals with such gay abandon, but it’s hard to imagine messrs Cashley & Terry exactly quaking in their boots at the prospect of containing the likes of Eduardo and Vela.

After feeling as if we’ve been living out of boxes these past three years, perhaps now that we’ve finally unpacked, this “Arsenalisation” of our new stadium will inspire the fortress spirit necessary for us to prevail against the Blues. Although, in an ideal world, I’d be feeling a whole lot more confident, if Arsène could call upon a selection of our legends to climb down off the murals and give Essien and co. a good hiding!


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Saturday 14 November 2009

Arsenalisation Process Soon To Be Completed?

G'day Fellow Gooners

In addition to these infernal interruptions to the domestic program, resulting from the International breaks, it's invariably a struggle for me to come up with a column for the Irish Examiner, when the Arsenal aren't playing.

But I find myself with a rare weekend off, so I might well not end up posting a piece on my blog this Monday and if so, you'll have to forgive me, as unsurprisingly, it would appear as if the paper's Terrace Talk feature on Wednesday is going to be displaced by coverage of the utterly insignificant game taking place in Paris that night :-)

That doesn't mean I haven't been slaving away at my keyboard but I've been writing a piece for the 200th issue of The Gooner and so I guess you're going to have to wait to buy a copy if you want to read it, as I can't really post it here because I'd be a little pissed off to buy a magazine containing articles I'd already read for free online.

Although one of the main reasons I wanted to post this piece was as an excuse to include some photos, as I stopped off at the ground on my way to work on Thursday morning to take some pictures.

The stadium was a positive hive of activity, with blue cranes dotted all over the shop as they install the remaining murals. The fourth mural in the North-West corner (even if a circle has no corners) includes images of Pires, Radford, O’Leary & Male and then on the way home last night I saw the completed mural on the East side, which is the one you get a marvelous view of as you drive down Aubert Park from the old gaff. Sadly it was too dark to take any pics but this one is made up of Bould, McLintock, Parlour & Rice.

Thus there are three more murals still to go up including 12 more players (to add to the collection that already includes Bastin, Adams, Brady & Henry. Bergkamp, Wilson, Hapgood & George. Seaman, Drake, Rocastle & James). There's a hell of a lot of Gooner heroes missing from this list. I suppose Wrighty is the most obvious modern day exclusion and I assume he'll appear in one of the remaining murals, but that will still leave loads of my own all-time Arsenal favourites struggling to make the final cut (eg. George Armstrong, Ray Kennedy, Kenny Sansom, Nigel Winterburn to name but four!) and I'm impatiently waiting to see the completed oeuvre.

Although I imagine the arguments will only start there, as there are bound to be endless barneys about who's been included and omitted. Moreover, in some respects I don't want the Arsenalisation process to end, as it's inspired in me the most interest I've had in the new stadium since it was opened, as I usually drive along Drayton Park at least twice daily and have been known to take the odd detour along Benwell Rd to the roundabout where it joins Hornsey Rd, in eager anticipation of each and every new development.

We won't have too long to wait, as according to one of the crane operators, they were supposed to be all done and dusted by today (Saturday). But I guess that the inclement weather put paid to a strangely urgent schedule. After all there isn't another home game until Standard Liège come to town on Tuesday 24th November.

Nevertheless, I couldn't resist stopping off on the way home from dinner at my Ma's last night, just past the two canons on the roundabout, to nip up the stairs to the left of the Box Office / the Armoury, to see if they'd got any further with the West side mural. But they'd only got so far as to put up the tensioners that are used to attach the gauze like fabric to, in order to stretch it taught.

I have to admit something of a professional interest, as I was only chatting to the technical director at the ballet the other day, a Notts Forest fan and telling him about the murals. He suggested the specific manufacturing process (which obviously I've immediately forgotten!) as they've had call to use it in our productions in the past, but only where the limitations of printing cloths in 3 metre strips didn't present a problem.

Meanwhile, after struggling to find the "Spirit of Highbury" installation, after the Spurs game, where the replica poster was reproduced in the programme, I'm pleased to say that this is now in situe at "podium level" above the Armoury shop. However with it still being fenced off, I'm assuming it's a work in progress, as in fact it would appear as if they've experienced some problems because the corners of this elongated team photo of every player to appear at THOF looks a bit like badly glued wallpaper at present, with lots of creases in the corners. I also assume it will get a covering of some sort to protect the picture, as otherwise unfortunately it's likely to end up defaced with graffiti in a nano-second!

I was planning on taking a walk around with the dog today to see if there've been any further developments, but I can't imagine anyone being up in a crane in such gale force conditions.

It's a shame really, as where we live, in Highbury Quadrant, is an unexpectedly green idyll between Blackstock Rd and Clissold Park and with so many trees, the autumnal colours are a treat. But winter has arrived virtually overnight, with the vast majority of trees having been completely denuded by hurricane like winds, leaving a somewhat depressingly stark scene and doubtless several days worth of that incredibly annoying racket, as the council's gardeners go about the seemingly futile business of pushing the leaves into huge piles with their noisy blower machines, only for a single gust of wind to restore the natural order of things and spoil all their efforts.

But you know I've run out of Arsenal related stuff if I'm resorting to discussing nature and having prattled on long enough to include a selection of my photos, I'll sign off and settle down for coverage of Ireland v France (with perhaps an appetiser of the David Haye's farcical heavyweight title fight, where I'm delighted I managed to resist the temptation to fork up another 15 odd quid to Sky to watch this circus act live).

Despite there doubtless being some torn loyalties, not wanting to see Titi, Sagna, Gallas and the rest of Les Blues get beat, as something of an adopted Irishman, I've gotta be up for Trapattoni's lads

Come on you Boys in Green
Big Love

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Monday 9 November 2009

Coming To A Town Near You......

I must admit that I was tempted to stop at home last Saturday and finally make some use of the additional 10 quid a month that I’ve been forking out for an ESPN subscription (making my monthly payment to Murdoch’s mob a massive £76), by watching the Wolves game on the box. After spending much of the week attached to a steering wheel, I really didn’t fancy getting back in the motor for a 5 hour round trip to the Black Country

However any genuine fan of the beautiful game would have to be bonkers to pass up the privilege of being able to watch the Gunners play live at present. When I think of how many miles I clocked up, following the “boring, boring” Arsenal’s far less enthralling former incarnation, I’m reminded that I mustn’t become blasé about the amazing adventures of Arsène’s current “scoring, scoring” side.

Although in truth, we’ve been in such scintillating form of late and we’ve enjoyed such fabulous entertainment in the fifty-five goals the Gunners have notched up thus far, that as fans there’s a certain sense of wanting to “fill yer boots”, or a fear of missing out on something special – especially at away games, where there’s a greater chance of exploiting the space afforded by the home team’s increased ambitions.

Doubtless those devout few Fulham fans (248!) who schlepped to Wigan at the weekend will have little sympathy, but after a long, hard week and with live coverage on the telly, without being able to teleport onto the terraces, it still takes dedication (and a good few quid!) to maintain one’s commitment to keeping the faith every single week.

After a couple of mates confirmed that their match tickets had long since turned up, I somehow convinced myself that I’d also received mine. I’d torn the flat upside down three times before coming to the conclusion that my ticket had been gobbled up by the black hole in our gaff, which has a habit of consuming items only when they are most needed.

As a result, potentially, I had a reasonable excuse for putting my feet up on Saturday, rather than face the prospect of missing much of the first-half, while queuing for a replacement ticket at the Molineux box office. A London postie might be a rarer sight than a ptarmigan at present, but to my astonishment two envelopes materialised in the letterbox on Friday morning, containing my tickets for Wolves and Sunderland. Despite a grovelling apology to my house proud missus, for any implication about her role in displacing my ticket along with all those odd socks, I’ve a feeling she’ll be feeding me humble pie from now until Xmas!

I blame Cardiff’s Jay Bothroyd for my tardy departure, as I tuned into the Welsh derby. Along with the likes of Sidwell, Pennant and Shamrock Rovers’ Graham Barrett, Bothroyd picked up the FA Youth Cup at the Arsenal in 2000. With his ability, pace and power, Jay reminded me of Stan Colymore in his pomp. But as I departed Highfield Road after the first leg of that final, I recall seeing him hanging with his posse of flash pals, instead of returning to the team coach. Prima facie evidence perhaps of how easily young players are led astray before realising their potential.

Looking back, this was perhaps the highpoint of that season, as my decidedly selective grey matter has managed to erase the majority of my unhappy memories of the trip to Copenhagen a few days later, for the UEFA Cup Final. I certainly recall little of the penalty shoot-out defeat to Galatasary after grinding out a 0-0 draw, but with Gooners arriving at the game still rubbing their eyes, after having been tear-gassed earlier in the day, this outing probably only lingers in the mind because it was the last time we experienced any serious aggro.

Contrast this to the present day, where the growing respect for our entertaining brand of Wenger-ball ensured that I felt a growing sense of pride, on the walk from the car to the ground on Saturday evening, as in their dour Midlands drawl, I overheard several locals expressing their admiration and their eager anticipation of seeing the Gunners play live.

Nevertheless, Mccarthy’s side weren’t prepared to be merely ‘the Patsy’ for the visit of the Premiership’s Harlem Globetrotters, as they gave it a real go for the first 20 minutes. It wasn’t until they’d put the ball in the back of their own net that their belief began to evaporate. I’m also sure it was no coincidence that the game turned so soon after Wolves robust efforts to cramp our style, forced Diaby to limp off. The home side hardly had a sniff, once Song came on to assist Ramsey in shoring up our midfield.

Molineux retains something of that ‘old school’ feel and as a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist and someone who remembers the feats of the Derek Dougan side of the 70s, I’d be happy to see them cling to their top flight status (besides it’s a much shorter trek than Boro!). They might survive, if Mccarthy can inspire in his team the sort of heart and passion that we witnessed from the Wolves fans.

Despite the Gunners turning on the style, orchestrated by Fabregas, our very own Meadowlark Lemon, off the pitch we could take a lesson or two from the unwavering support of the locals. I can only imagine how empty our place would be, come the final whistle, if we were on the wrong end of this sort of drubbing, while the majority of those who lingered would be intent on expressing their disgust. It’s all too easy to whoop and holler while spanking the opposition, but it is showing your true colours, in trying to keep your side’s spirit up when things are going pear-shaped, which separates an ‘audience’ from genuine ‘supporters’.

The Gunners third against Wolves, as the cliché goes, was worth the price of admission alone. But it might have been a different story all together if we’d not been aided and abetted by two own-goals. Meanwhile, as the tension builds towards Saturday’s crucial encounter at Croke Park, we can but hope that such good fortune favours Ireland and that it is the turn of Il Trap’s team spirit to triumph over Gallic quality?

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Tuesday 3 November 2009

Stan Kroenke's Shareholding Passes 29 Per Cent Threshold!

I've just seen an email from a shareholder which announces Stan Kroenke has bought an additional 427 shares in the club and as a result he has now passed the 29 per cent threshold.

According to the email it takes him to 29.6 per cent of the "voting rights"


Champions League? You’re Havin’ A Larf!

It was vital that we beat Spurs on Saturday, to ensure that we re-established the natural North London order of things. It’s been so long since Spurs presented any sort of real threat, that Saturday’s triumph inspired the sort of quasi-religious fervour on the terraces, of the sort that’s only previously surfaced at our new stadium during those riotous few minutes, before a ball had been kicked in last season’s fateful Champions League semi.

Sadly on that occasion, the euphoria was all too short-lived. So considering Saturday’s derby was a mid-day kick-off, encounters which are renowned for being totally devoid of atmosphere, because fans are unable to get sufficiently tanked up to dispense with their inhibitions, it was a rare pleasure to savour several ‘hair on the back of your neck’ moments, during a second half where all 57,000 Gooners finally found their ‘roof raising’ voices, eventually sending shell-shocked Spurs fans scurrying for the exits, with the haunting refrain ringing in their ears “Champions League? You’re havin’ a larf!”

With Premiership football being such a global attraction, that’s so far removed from the parochial contest of yesteryear, there are many Gooners nowadays who struggle to fully appreciate the intensity of the local rivalry. Unless you’re old enough to recall an era when Arsenal and Spurs jockeyed for supremacy amongst the First Division’s “big six”, or you happen to be confronted by the enemy in your midst on a daily basis, amongst friends and family who kick with the wrong foot, you’re bound to be more bothered about getting one over on your Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool supporting pals, than the prospect of swatting the irritating Lilywhite fly a couple of times a season.

Thus the appearance of Harry Redknapp’s team on the competitive radar has undoubtedly added some spice to the current campaign. If only due to the delicious prospect of savouring the Schadenfreude, knowing their lofty aspirations will inevitably end up shot down in flames, sooner or later.

I know of one particular Gooner who refuses to go to the Spurs game and who won’t even watch live on the box because he gets so stressed out. After stealing occasional glances at the scoreline, I wonder if he felt safe enough to tune in at 2-0 up on Saturday? But as I dashed around to the game, late as ever, passing the hordes of old bill gathering on Blackstock Road, accompanied by an intimidating soundtrack of barking Alsatians and buzzing helicopters, I understood why someone might choose to stop at home.

Cynic that I am, I’ve always wondered if the powers that be are intent on provoking the sort of trouble that will justify their presence and the substantial cost of all that overtime. Since to my mind this sort of high-profile police presence actually creates an antagonistic atmosphere and often acts as an open invitation to the mindless larrikins who might want to challenge authority.

There are plenty of undesirables on either side of the North London divide and perhaps I’m bound to be biased, but the atmosphere rarely feels anywhere near as menacing at our place, as it invariably is at White Hart Lane. Perhaps Spurs fans have grown accustomed to needing an alternative source of entertainment, or an outlet for their frustrations. But for genuine fans of the beautiful game, as opposed to anyone looking for a barney, this over-bearing police presence means that the derby is less of a game and more of a mission.; where the objective is to get in, get a result, get out and home safe!

After so many years of eating our dust, Tottenham will have turned up on Saturday, hoping that Harry Redknapp had at long last afforded them an opportunity to shrug off their innate sense of inferiority. However if they needed any reminder of their down-trodden status during the Wenger dynasty, they arrived at our gaff to be greeted by images of Vieira, Lewis, Dixon and Mercer on the 4th enormous mural adorning the outside of the stadium, above the away fans entrance, with these 4 former heroes linking arms with the 12 Arsenal legends on the three other existing murals.

While we debate the 16 players who’ll feature on the 4 remaining murals, which will soon result in a ring of 32 Gunner greats circling the entire ground, it’s wonderful to turn up to each game to experience this transformation in progress. I’m no psychologist but I sense this “Arsenalisation” process is having the desired effect, ramping up the feeling of pride for the fans (and who knows, perhaps for the players alike), as each successive home game reveals new reminders of our illustrious past. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but should this effort contribute to a building momentum on the pitch, which eventually results in a concerted title challenge, it’ll be an impossible act to follow next season!

I was actually a little disappointed on Saturday, as last Wednesday’s programme referred to “the Spirit of Highbury” installation, which is an elongated team photo type image, including every player & manger who ever appeared at the old ground. With a six-page poster of this image in the centrefold of Saturday’s programme, we wandered around outside, after the game, searching in vain for the original.

Having showed the poster to a steward, who was even more bemused than me, he instead invited us back into the ground to view the two new displays portraying our European conquests and managerial records, on the concourse walls inside. All we could find outside was some scaffolding, where I assume we can look forward to seeing this impressive photographic installation, mounted at a home game in the near future - although you can be certain I won’t be able to resist taking regular detours on my way home, in the hope of seeing it sooner.

The board’s efforts to create more of a fortress Arsenal feel to the new place certainly seemed to bear fruit at the weekend. Although, sitting in their comfy, cushioned seats, there’s an inevitable inertia amongst the Arsenal’s nouveau fans. Instead of waiting for events on the park to inspire a white-hot cauldron like atmosphere, I only wish they’d realise how advantageous it can be the other way around, when the atmosphere can be the catalyst for the performance.

In fact, events could’ve easily taken a calamitous turn for the worse, if it wasn’t for the good fortune of that crucial two-goal flurry on the stroke of halftime that’s afforded this match the moniker of “the 11 second derby

We seemed second best all over the park up until then, as if the flat-footed players in red & white were the only ones present who didn’t fully appreciate the significance of this encounter. One could question whether there was an element of arrogance in the way we appeared to be waiting for our guests to give us our ball back, perhaps counting on them to eventually begin to flag.

I was far from alone in my frustration, screaming myself hoarse with my unrequited pleas to “put them under”. Sadly, others were far less encouraging. Abou Diaby’s inept first-half display was in danger of developing into a repeat of the shameful Eboué episode, as the crowd’s counter-productive ire only made Diaby an increasingly nervous liability, perhaps lingering in the centre of the pitch, to remain out of earshot of the venomous diatribe.

Mercifully our fickle fans instantly forgave and forgot, as the building tension resulted in the entire stadium going bonkers when Van Persie found the back of the net. I was still celebrating, giving the Spurs fans beside us the finger and only just turned in time to see Cesc’s knife through butter build up to his scinitillating second.

I felt some sympathy for my Spurs mates, as instead of going into the break feeling quite pleased with their performance, it was game over! And as if to add insult to their injury, they discovered they’d drawn Man Utd away in the Carling Cup quarterfinal.

After the last couple of games, there was no counting chickens at the break. Surely we’d learned enough not to throw away a third successive win? But in truth, with their one-dimensional attack, a Spurs comeback was never on the cards. Moreover, the best atmosphere in the stadium to date, offered an amazingly reassuring sense of our 12th man’s capacity to deny Spurs the slightest encouragement.

The Scousers demise is a blessing in disguise because it offers the chasing pack someone else to shoot at, other than us. Psychologically, it makes a massive difference for the Arsenal to be mentioned in the same breath as Chelsea and Man Utd and considering how we were being written off before the season started, I’ll be perfectly content if we can remain the outsider, coming up on the rails. Arsène might be obliged to talk up a title challenge, but I need not tempt fate. Ask me again after Xmas!

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